A member of the mint family with small curling leaves, thyme is native to the southern Mediterranean region. Its antimicrobial properties have led to its long use as a food preservative, as well as a healing and purifying medicinal herb.
Thyme was used as an embalming ingredient by the ancient Egyptians, and bundles of thyme were traditionally burned by ancient Greeks and Romans to purify both homes and temples. The Romans also ate thyme sprigs before and after a meal, believing it to be an antidote to poison. This tradition continued with medicinal potions made from thyme used to combat the Black Death in the 1340s. Even in the 19th century, nurses soaked bandages in thyme-infused water. Throughout history, thyme was also used in baking, cooking and food preservation to help protect against spoilage and foodborne disease.
Along with nutrients such as vitamins A and C, potassium, and magnesium, thyme is known for containing a powerful antiseptic known as thymol, a common ingredient in mouthwash, hand sanitizer and acne medication.
Stand thyme sprigs in a jar with 1 to 2 inches of water, and keep for up to 3 weeks. Alternatively, wrap thyme sprigs in a damp paper towel, seal in a plastic bag or jar, and keep in refrigerator crisper for up to 1 week.
With its deep, pungent flavor, thyme is part of the traditional French bouquet garni used to flavor stock and soups, as well as the Middle Eastern spice mix za’atar. Another popular use of thyme is infusing it into oil or butter and using to baste meat, poultry or fish while roasting or grilling. It offers warm, earthy flavor to grains and legumes, as well as marinades and vinaigrettes, and is a tasty addition when sprinkled onto garlic bread. It also pairs well with sweet flavors, and can be infused into jellies or syrups for use in dessert or cocktails.
If not using a whole sprig of thyme, separate leaves from stem and chop finely to use. 1 tablespoon of fresh thyme substitutes for 1 teaspoon dried.